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It’s ‘Black Lives Matter at School Week': Why that matters, and how classrooms are taking part

Black Lives Matter at School Week started Monday, with schools throughout the country incorporating lessons about institutional racism, restorative justice and other issues. (Black Lives Matter at School Week)

It speaks to our times that this year’s Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action starts when the Democratic governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, is under intense pressure to resign. The calls have followed revelations that his 1984 medical school yearbook page included a racist photo and that he had applied shoe polish to his face to imitate Michael Jackson in a 1984 dance contest.

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Black Lives Matter at School Week was started by teachers, parents and administrators who organize for racial justice in education and sponsor an annual week of action during the first week of February. It is connected to but not directly linked to the Black Lives Matter movement, and it has been supported by school boards, unions and other organizations along with public officials.

The goal of the week is to teach young people through lessons, discussions, art and social action about structural racism, black identity and history, and restorative justice and related issues. The organizers say thousands of people throughout the country took part last year and they expect a similar level of participation this year.

Israel Presley, a Seattle student activist, recalled last year’s Black Lives Matter at School Week in a video promoting the occasion. “I learned so much, so much, that really empowered me as a black male,” he said. “This was probably the first time I was really excited about school.”

The week-long event is taking place in an era when President Trump is seen as normalizing racism by disparaging people of color and refusing to condemn white supremacists. In many places throughout the country, incidents of racial bullying are rising on K-12 campuses. Just a few months ago, the Utah chapter of the NAACP called for schools to address a growing number of incidents in which white students were hurling racial slurs at black students.

“What is happening in our schools today is heartbreaking,” Sabrina Burr, a parent education activist in Seattle, said in the video (see below). “Our kids are being called the n-word. We have white students who think it is okay to come to school for Halloween with a KKK mask."

Many students use old textbooks that contain inaccurate black history, including some that call enslaved people “workers.” Indeed, the Texas Board of Education voted in November to include in textbooks, for the first time, slavery as a “major” cause of the Civil War, although it would not remove states' rights as a cause, too — even though historians say states’ rights is simply a euphemism for slavery.

Research shows that assigning at least one black teacher in the third, fourth or fifth grade to black students who live in poverty significantly reduces the chances that they will drop out of school. Yet the teaching profession remains overwhelmingly white.

There are four demands associated with the week: ending “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies, mandating black history and ethnic studies, hiring more black teachers, and ensuring that schools have more counselors for students at a time when more than 1.5 million children go to schools with police officers on site but no counselors.

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The organizers have assembled materials for teachers and others who want to participate. Here’s a Web page that has a lot of information, including links to the week’s 11 guiding principles as well as curriculum guides and other material.

There is also a book titled “Teaching for Black Lives,” a collection of writings that help educators humanize blacks in teaching and policy and that help to connect lessons to young people’s lives. It was edited by Dyan Watson, Jesse Hagopian and Wayne Au, and published to show educators how they “can and should make their classrooms and schools sites of resistance to white supremacy and anti-Blackness, as well as sites for knowing the hope and beauty in Blackness.”

Teachers and others on social media are posting activities related to the week: